Preliminary Hearing: Definition, Purpose & Process

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Once you complete this lesson, you will understand what constitutes a preliminary hearing. You will review the definition, examine the purpose, and review the procedure of a preliminary hearing.


When you watch legal dramas on television or in the movies, you will often see a crime committed and then cut right to the dramatic court scene, skipping over significant criminal procedure. For example, you may see someone commit a murder on screen, and then the next time you see them is on a court room stand giving a dramatic performance. Unfortunately, things are not so quick and easy when it comes to the real life criminal justice system. There is a great more that goes on behind the scenes, and one part of this process is called the preliminary hearing.


A preliminary hearing is sometimes referred to as a probable cause hearing. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether there is sufficient probable cause in order for a defendant to go to trial. In other words, the judge will examine all of the evidence the police have against the person and decide if there is enough there to believe that a crime was committed and that the accused person committed the crime. Once the judge reviews the case and makes a determination, the determination is final. If the judge decides that there is enough evidence, the trial will continue.


Usually within 30 days of the arraignment, which is the process where the accused enters a plea of guilty or not guilty, the preliminary hearing occurs. The preliminary hearing is typically open to the public, unless there are children involved, in which case the judge may close the case to the public.

At the outset of the hearing, the prosecutor will submit witness testimony to the court about the facts of the case. The accused's attorney, also known as the defense attorney, will cross-examine the witnesses. Cross-examine means to question the witnesses. In addition, the prosecutor will submit evidence. This evidence may include weapons, photographs, documents, or other items. Once the prosecution has completed presenting its case, the defense attorney has the right to call witnesses and present evidence as well. Frequently, the defense attorney does not do so.

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